Cen­te­nary of the First World War: Pass­chen­daele

This England - - Contents - Tonie and Val­mai Holt

I“…It was the last ball of the over. The black­smith glared at the um­pire…took an­other reef in his belt, shook out an­other inch in his braces, spat on his hand…grasped the ball tightly in his colos­sal palm and…marched off…over the brow of the hill. At last, af­ter a long still­ness, the ground shook, the grasses waved vi­o­lently, small birds arose with shrill clam­ours…and the black­smith, look­ing more like Venus Anady­omene than ever, came thun­der­ing over the crest…it was the charge of Von Bre­dow’s Dra­goons at Grav­elotte over again.”

n writ­ing what is prob­a­bly the fun­ni­est story of an English vil­lage cricket match in his won­der­ful book, Eng­land, Their Eng­land, A. G. Mac­donell seems to have been in­tox­i­cated with de­light, his imag­i­na­tion seek­ing both ab­sur­dity and re­al­ity within a world of school­boy fun. It was a world where to be English meant Em­pire, King and Coun­try, cricket, vil­lages and foot­ball. Mac­donell had the idea for the book when shel­ter­ing with a fel­low Gun­ner Subal­tern in a bunker on Pass­chen­daele Ridge dur­ing the bat­tle in 1917. It would have al­lowed them both to for­get the world of mud — mud which swal­lowed alive sol­diers and an­i­mals alike and through which, de­spite ap­peals to stop, the Bri­tish Com­man­der, Gen­eral Haig, for week af­ter week sent his men to at­tack the Ger­mans at the top of the ridge.

Be­low the ridge, a rough semi­cir­cle like a cup-less saucer bro­ken in half, lies the city of Ypres. Since 1914 the Ger­mans had been try­ing to come down to the mid­dle and to take the city, while the Bri­tish held on to it and the perime­ter around it, known as the Ypres Salient, and stopped them. They never took Ypres.

Some­thing had to be done. But 1917 was a year of mixed for­tunes for the war ef­fort of both sides. There was a Ger­man with­drawal to the Hin­den­burg Line, leav­ing be­hind a belt of de­struc­tion with poi­soned water sup­plies and ru­ined build­ings akin to

that of Sher­man’s March to the Sea in the Amer­i­can Civil War in 1864.

In April the Cana­di­ans had suc­cess at Vimy Ridge but im­me­di­ately af­ter that French Gen­eral Niv­elle fought, and lost, a dis­as­trous and costly bat­tle at the Chemin des Dames, which led to wide­spread mu­tinies. Then, cap­ping th­ese events, the Ger­mans’ use of un­re­stricted sub­ma­rine war­fare was caus­ing ever greater hard­ships at home in Bri­tain.

Gen­eral Haig, the Bri­tish Com­man­der-in-chief, con­vinced the Gov­ern­ment that by at­tack­ing in force along the Ypres Salient a drive could be made to the Ger­man sub­ma­rine bases along the coast, thus re­duc­ing the huge ship­ping losses which had re­sulted in ra­tioning at home. They agreed, but first Haig had to take the Pass­chen­daele Ridge be­fore he could ad­vance. This job he gave to Gen­eral Plumer.

On 7th June 1917 Gen­eral Plumer’s 2nd Army, in a well-planned at­tack, took the southern end of the Ridge around Messines, and then for some seven weeks more Haig read­ied his forces for the main at­tack on Pass­chen­daele, while the Ger­mans on top of the Ridge watched from their con­crete pill­boxes be­hind barbed wire and read­ied their new weapon — mus­tard gas.

The main bat­tle opened on 31st July. In­ten­sive ar­tillery bom­bard­ments and tor­ren­tial rain­fall had turned the ground into a quag­mire pit­ted with shell holes full of water so that ev­ery step promised death, not just from the Ger­man fire and gas but from the gluti­nous, hun­gry mud.

The at­tack floun­dered and Haig was pres­sured to stop the of­fen­sive. He didn’t un­til 10th Novem­ber when Pass­chen­daele vil­lage was cap­tured — but at the cost of an es­ti­mated 300,000 Bri­tish ca­su­al­ties. Of those killed some 12,000 are buried at Tyne Cot CWGC Ceme­tery which sits on the ridge astride the re­mains of Ger­man bunkers.

To­day’s vis­i­tor to the bat­tle­field should start at Tyne Cot. Here you can count a frac­tion of the cost and see the bat­tle­field across which the Bri­tish ad­vanced. This is the largest CWGC ceme­tery in the world with 11,953 graves, many of them un­known. There is also a huge curved Me­mo­rial Wall upon which are the names of al­most 35,000 dead from Au­gust 1917 to the end of the war. Their bod­ies were never found.

Among them is the poet, 2nd Lt. Wil­liam Hamil­ton, a lec­turer in Phi­los­o­phy at Univer­sity Col­lege, Cape Town, who vol­un­teered in the Cold­stream Guards in Au­gust 1916,

and who was killed on 12th Oc­to­ber 1917. In his bit­ter War Son­net No. 1, Hamil­ton ques­tions how those …who lightly talk of Eng­land’s

debt; Who mud­dle into gov­ern­ment and

war… shall meet this greater debt in­curred of

rea­son­able hope out­raged… …by the death of the youth whose

golden prom­ise was spilt. Also named here is the poet, Captain Eric Fitzwa­ter Wilkin­son MC, West Yorks, (pic­tured) killed on 9th Oc­to­ber 1917. He vividly de­scribes the re­al­ity of the guns’ bom­bard­ment in the iron­i­cally en­ti­tled “Twen­ti­ethCen­tury Civil­i­sa­tion”: There’s a roar like a thou­sand hells

set free, And the riven, tor­tured ground Sways like a tem­pest-smit­ten tree; And the earth shoots up in jets all

around And blows like spray at sea. The trench is soon a hideous mess Of yawn­ing holes and scat­tered mud And tan­gled wire and splin­tered

wood, And some poor shape­less things

you’d guess Were once made up of nerves and

blood But now are no more good Than the tat­tered sand­bags — nay,

far less, For th­ese can still be used again. An­other no­table poet killed on the first day of the bat­tle was L. C. Hob­son whose name is on the Menin Gate, prob­a­bly the most vis­ited me­mo­rial in the world, un­der which Bel­gian bu­glers sound the Last Post at 2000 hours ev­ery day of the year in grat­i­tude for the Bri­tish de­fence of Bel­gium.

One verse in Hob­son’s “War” sum­marises tellingly the steady toll of death: Oh! Com­rades of the old time The weary months go by, New faces are about me New friends with me to die! Lt. Ai­dan Chavasse, also on the Menin Gate (to­gether with the names of 54,000 oth­ers miss­ing with no known grave from the out­break of war in Au­gust 1914 to 15th Au­gust 1917), was the younger brother of Capt. Noel Chavasse, the only dou­ble VC who won both the medal and its bar in the First World War. Noel was killed on 4th Au­gust dur­ing the bat­tle, one month af­ter his brother. His head­stone is in Brand­hoek New Military CWGC Ceme­tery.

It is eas­ier to find in­for­ma­tion about a sol­dier who did not re­turn than it is for one who sur­vived. But to find out more about those who died there are two par­tic­u­lar web­sites to go to.

The Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion site (www.cwgc.org) is easy to use and self-ex­plana­tory but one lit­tle-used search can be very use­ful: find­ing out if any­one from your home town was killed dur­ing the bat­tle of Pass­chen­dale.

Typ­ing in www.cwgc.org/find­war-dead.aspx brings up the site page which is used to search. Let us sup­pose that your name is Daven­port and you wish to dis­cover first of all if any of your an­ces­tors, who also had that name, were killed dur­ing the war. Put the name Daven­port into the “Sur­name” box, se­lect First World War in the “War” box and click “Search”. You will get around 200 re­sults.

Now let us see how many were killed dur­ing the bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele. Put the dates of the bat­tle (31st July – 10th Novem­ber 1917) into the re­spec­tive start­ing and ending “Date of Death” boxes in the “Re­fine Search” col­umn and click. You will get some 15 re­sults.

Now you de­cide to see if any came from your home town (say Birm­ing­ham). This is the op­tion that is rarely used, though of course you can only get out in­for­ma­tion that is held by the Com­mis­sion. Type “Birm­ing­ham” in the box la­belled “Ad­di­tional In­for­ma­tion” and click the “Re­fine Search” op­tion again. The num­ber re­duces to two!

If any read­ers find rel­a­tives as a re­sult of this se­quence that they had not known about be­fore, the au­thors would love to know (bat­tle­fields@ guide-books.co.uk)

The Last Post As­so­ci­a­tion (www. last­post.be), a self-fund­ing vol­un­tary group which runs the nightly Last Post Cer­e­mony, has an ex­cel­lent app full of in­for­ma­tion and in­ter­est­ing facts, such as a day-by-day total of the names to be found on the Menin Gate. While this can­not in any way be an ac­cu­rate mea­sure of those “Miss­ing” along the whole Western Front, it does of­fer a like­for-like com­par­i­son. The fig­ures given for 31st July, the first day of the Pass­chen­daele bat­tle, are 4,480 names — the pre­vi­ous day there were 117! The 31st July fig­ure is greater than the to­tals for most of the months dur­ing the whole of the war and th­ese men sim­ply dis­ap­peared in the mud.

Left: Frank Hur­ley’s fa­mous im­age of Australian troops pass­ing through the dev­as­tated Chateau Wood on 29th Oc­to­ber 1917. Above: A Bri­tish 18-pounder bat­tery at Boesinghe. Be­low: The shell-pocked bat­tle­field; Tyne Cot Ceme­tery.

The head­stone of dou­ble VC win­ner Noel Chavasse; the au­thors hold­ing orig­i­nal bu­gles, with Last Post Chair­man Benoit Mot­trie.

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